British Columbia Analysis

Smoky B.C. air felling foreign berry pickers, advocates sound alarm

‘One man was vomiting blood. We are searching for him to help him’

Posted: August 12, 2017
Last Updated: August 14, 2017

The B.C. Federation of Labour is asking for donations such as hats, gloves and water bottles to help temporary foreign workers cope with the smoky B.C. air in fields where they are working. (B.C. Federation of Labour/Facebook)

At least 10 farm workers — seven Mexicans and three Guatemalans — have been sent home this summer after they were deemed too ill to work, say advocates who blame smoky conditions and lack of protections for making some sick.

At a Maple Ridge blueberry farm, workers said five pickers fainted this week after hours of harvesting on a recent hot day, lacking water and cool rest times.


"One man was vomiting blood. We are searching for him to help him," said Byron Cruz of Sanctuary Health, an organization that reaches out to temporary farm workers to monitor health issues.

And that's sparked advocates to call for better government protections, such as more surprise farm inspections, to protect temporary agricultural workers.

Farm workers harvest cranberries on a farm in Surrey B.C. Activist Raul Gatica said more oversight and checks are needed to protect workers who lack language skills, transportation and fear backlash. (Migrant Workers Dignity Association / Organización Dignidad Migrante)

Over the next few days, advocates are heading out to farms to verify complaints and conditions, but say systemic change is needed to protect workers' health.

While farmers argue that horror stories are overblown, and bad employers rare, labour watchdogs say they're deluged with complaints about workers pushed too hard in smoky conditions caused by wildfires.

Air quality has been so bad that health officials were urging people in the Lower Mainland to stay inside and avoid strenuous outdoor activity until skies clear.

The B.C. Federation of Labour has begun helping advocates by launching a campaign to collect supplies — from hats and sports drinks to face masks — to make sure workers are protected.

Workers from Sarbanand Farms protest the death of Honesto Silva Ibarra and poor working conditions at the farm in front of the Whatcom County Courthouse in Washington state. (Community to Community Development)

This all comes as tensions over worker safety ignited this week after the death of a 28-year-old Mexican guest worker on a U.S. blueberry farm near the B.C. border.

Honesto Silva Ibarra fell ill working at Sarbanand Farms in Sumas, Washington. He died in a Seattle hospital, but the causes are unclear.

Co-workers said he complained of headaches in the field, and collapsed after going to a clinic. An advocacy group in Washington, Community to Community Development, said the farm worker became sick from dehydration and went into cardiac arrest.

However, his employer issued a statement to local media, saying the worker died due to complications from diabetes. Calls to the farm from the CBC were not returned.

Farm workers head in from the cranberry harvest in Surrey B.C. (Migrant Workers Dignity Association / Organización Dignidad Migrante)

The death sparked online outrage with people posting calls for a boycott of produce from the Sumas operation.

The tragedy also raised concerns about workers in B.C. facing similar conditions.

Advocates worry that farms in more remote locations face only sporadic inspections from WorkSafeBC.

In Canada, more than 50,000 seasonal farm workers were hired in 2015. More than 8,600 work on thousands of farms in British Columbia where the pressure to pick and pack produce peaks during summer harvest season. Many come from other countries, including Mexico and Guatemala.

A group of farm workers in Surrey B.C. (Migrant Workers Dignity Association / Organización Dignidad Migrante)

Cruz, of Sanctuary Health, said he's heard stories of how employers at some greenhouses provide staff with GPS-equiped watches to monitor their productivity but seem less concerned about providing sufficient water and breaks. Activists won't name the farms where this occurred because the workers fear employer reprisals.

A group of farm workers play soccer in Ladner B.C. (Migrant Workers Dignity Association / Organización Dignidad Migrante)

Raul Gatica, a former farm worker and co-founder of the Migrant Workers' Dignity Association, says his organization authored a report after gathering information from 1,300 farm workers during the 2014-15 season.

Gatica and his organization do the front-line work finding labourers with concerns and meeting them to verify stories and determine the effect of new technology on their work day.

Their report, Beyond Our Plates, made it clear that more oversight and checks are needed to protect vulnerable workers who lack language skills, transportation and fear backlash.

"Workers are not getting even a simple mask," Gatica said. "They are not getting even a rest. They get just pressure and harassment saying you have to work or go back to your country."

Farmers bristle

But long-time farmers say employers who mistreat workers are rare and that many of the stories of abuse are overblown.

Rhonda Driediger, with the B.C. Agricultural Council, said bad employers are weeded out of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program — the federal program that brings in foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skills shortages — with the help of the Mexican Consulate and Service Canada.

"If you are a bad employer, you are not getting workers."

A group of farm workers head to church in Pitt Meadows, B.C. (Migrant Workers Dignity Association / Organización Dignidad Migrante)

Driediger says many employees return year after year. One man has come back to B.C. for 11 years,

She insisted her workers have water, cool-off breaks and rides into the city to keep them safe, and says she's confident that most B.C. operations do the same.

"I'm surprised that the young man in Washington — that it got to that point — but we don't know all the circumstances."


Yvette Brend

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. @ybrend